In a sweltering hell-hole the only work to be found is with an American oil company - and they're not hiring. But then, an opportunity arises. A fire at an inland oil rig demands action. Four men are selected to drive two truckloads of nitro-glycerine along treacherous mountain tracks, deep into the jungle. If they survive, they'll make enough money to be able to get out of the place ...
Henri-Georges Clouzot's 'Le Salaire de la Peur' (1953) is pretty well pure cinema. Once the characters and the situation have been set up, and those two huge trucks are rolling into the mountains with their explosive payloads, the suspense becomes intolerable. It's tough, it's brutal ... and it's great.
Four desperate men are hired to drive two truckloads of nitro-glycerine deep into the jungle to put out a fire at an oil rig. Will any of them make it?
What makes it work is something very simple. The set-up is established, and then we're off, into the world of adventure, that dangerous road crammed with obstacles and difficulties. Characters are tested to their limits.
I'm not going to tell you how it ends. But if you get a chance, watch it.
You can almost think of 'Le Salaire de la Peur' as two films. There's the first section, when we meet the characters who are stuck in a dreadful village in the middle of nowhere. Then there's the second section, when the 'lucky' few have a chance to earn their way out by undertaking a kind of suicide mission. The first part is the set-up. The second part is what we pay to see - it's the fun stuff.
I'm forever reading scripts in which the fun stuff never comes. We seem to be wading through set-up constantly. More information, more ideas, more background - but never a movie.
With scripts like that, the writer is behaving just a like a hero in a story, but a hero who never commits to the adventure. The consequence is a script which never really gets out of Act One.
Act One is often a chore (the opening part of 'Le Salaire de la Peur' is rather slow), but it's necessary to set up the characters and the circumstances of the story. Act Two is the story. Act Two is where the writer (and the viewer) has fun. Act Three just rounds everything off.
If you don't organise a good enough set-up for yourself, you won't have a story.
And when you've got a good set-up, you have to discipline yourself. Set up the story and then GET ON WITH THE STORY. In other words, organise your set-up and then ENJOY YOURSELF.
Spend a certain amount of time establishing your characters and then SEND THEM OUT THERE WITH THE NITRO-GLYCERINE. And, what's more, MAKE IT AS HARD AS POSSIBLE FOR THEM TO SUCCEED.
And then you've got a story.
I've been thinking of this since my last post. One comment (thanks, Chelle) suggested that script development really is an issue. So I'm going to post a few blogs which examine the process of development. This post can be thought of as a preface, or an introduction to the 'Development' posts.
Before you even start working on a script, ask yourself: 'Have I got a good, strong set-up?'
'Have I got good, strong characters and an interesting problem?'
'Have I got a story?'
And let's be clear - the story is what happens after the set-up. In 'Le Salaire de la Peur', the story is four men, two trucks, a huge amount of nitro-glycerine and a dreadful journey along appalling roads. That's the story. Everything else is just setting up the story (Act One) or resolving the story (Act Three).
So - before you start, you need to know that you've got a great situation which you can really have fun with, torturing and testing your characters for up to an hour of screen time.
Next time, we'll look at how you create a good set-up. But for now, always bear this in mind -
A lot of scripts fail because the story isn't there, and because there isn't a story, the writer spends the whole time trying to set one up. Which would be like 'Le Salaire de la Peur' never leaving the village, never setting out in those beat-up trucks, never facing the thrills of the mountain road.
If you haven't got a good set-up, you haven't got a story and you haven't got a script.
Here endeth the lesson.